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Camp David 2000

Reply to Deborah Sontag

A number of writers have criticized the account set forth in the previous section, and have promoted a "revisionist" view. According to this view, the Palestinians are not to blame for the failure of the Camp David process, or at the very least, are no more to blame than the Israelis. Such conclusions depend on neglecting some of the most relevant data. There is therefore a need to critique the critics.

Names associated with the revisionist view include Deborah Sontag, Robert Malley, and Clayton Swisher. In this section we respond to Deborah Sontag.

Deborah Sontag's article "Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed"(1) has received much attention, even though it does not present any new information. It also contains a number of inaccuracies. For example, in describing what she calls the "cycle of violence," Sontag fails to distinguish between the Palestinian's specifically targeting civilians and Israel's targeting those who perpetrate violence against civilians. Sontag also mentions delays in scheduled land transfers, but fails to state that such delays were preceded by flare-ups in Palestinian terrorism. And she perpetuates the myth that the cause of the "Al-Aqsa" intifada was Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount.

Sontag seems to search for reasons explaining Arafat's behavior:

In the tumble of the all-consuming violence, much has not been revealed or examined. Rather, a potent, simplistic narrative has taken hold in Israel and to some extent in the United States. It says: Mr. Barak offered Mr. Arafat the moon at Camp David last summer. Mr. Arafat turned it down, and then "pushed the button" and chose the path of violence.

One often hears apologists for the Palestinians claiming that "Barak didn't offer Arafat the moon at Camp David." This caricature only trivializes and demeans what actually did happen. Of course Arafat didn't get "the moon" at Camp David. What he got was a serious offer, and later in December he got an even better and very reasonable one. The "moon" is not relevant. The moon is the stuff of dreams, of mythology, and neither side can hold onto its dreams. Both sides must be prepared to give up at least a slice of their ideal visions.

In questioning the view that Arafat was mostly responsible for the failure of the Camp David process, Sontag appears to absolve him from responsibility:

Mr. Arafat did eventually authorize his negotiators to engage in talks in Taba that used the Clinton proposal as a foundation. Despite reports to the contrary in Israel, however, Mr. Arafat never turned down "97 percent of the West Bank" at Taba, as many Israelis hold. The negotiations were suspended by Israel because elections were imminent and "the pressure of Israeli public opinion against the talks could not be resisted," said Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israel's foreign minister at the time.

This paragraph is misleading. Arafat did turn down 97% at Washington in December, as the previous section has documented. He also knew that Clinton's and Barak's terms in office were coming to an end, yet he still let the opportunity slip. Sontag's implication that negotiations might have succeeded had Israel not "suspended" the talks is also false. At Taba the Palestinian position hardened, the sides grew farther apart, and what concessions the Palestinian negotiators did make did not receive the consent or support of Arafat.(2) Arafat himself made this quite plain right after the conference.

At the conclusion of the Taba Conference the two sides issued a joint statement expressing optimism: "The sides declare that they have never been closer to reaching an agreement."(3) But on the very next day Arafat himself revealed that the Palestinian commitment to Taba was a sham. Speaking to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, he attempted to lay the blame for the violence of the new intifada on Israel, making wild, exaggerated and baseless charges, after which he negated any concessions the Palestinian negotiating team may have made:

The current Government of Israel is waging, for the last four months, a savage and barbaric war, as well as, a blatant and fascist military aggression against our Palestinian people. In this aggression it is using internationally prohibited weapons and ammunitions that include in their construction depleted uranium. In addition, Israel is laying against us total siege, indeed, worse than that, it is imposing this siege against every village and town....

Whoever wants really to achieve peace and seeks it with belief and sincerity, does not resort to killing, persecution, assassination, destruction and devastation as the Government of Israel and its army of occupation are doing to our people these days and since four continuous months.....

You know, ladies and gentlemen, that we have made great concessions and sacrifices in order to achieve comprehensive, just and permanent peace. Yes, indeed, we have accepted less than one quarter of the total area of historic Palestine. We accepted, at the Madrid Peace Conference, the principle of land for peace on the basis of [UN] Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 which call for the withdrawal of Israel, the occupying power, from all Arab and Palestinian occupied territories, including Holy Jerusalem, to the fourth of June border lines; the dismantling of every thing the occupation has built in terms of settlements and settlement structures that have no basis of legality; and the implementation of [UN General Assembly] Resolution 194 on the Palestinian refugees.(4)

In other words, the Palestinians refuse to make any concessions at all. To Arafat, simply allowing Israel to exist is already concession enough. So much for Taba.

One does not attack a negotiating partner with such vitriol right after a round of supposedly promising negotiations if one is sincere about continuing them. One especially does not make false charges ("depleted uranium," "imposing this siege against every village and town"). Arafat's statement that "Whoever wants really to achieve peace and seeks it with belief and sincerity, does not resort to killing..." is consummate hypocrisy. Throughout the history of the conflict Palestinians have initiated violence and killing. Many Palestinian attacks on civilians, including numerous car and bus bombings, occurred before Arafat made his speech,(5) and the situation has only gotten worse since then.

Arafat's shameful performance, not Israel's time constraints, aborted the process begun at Taba. After this speech, in which Arafat called Israel "fascist" and denied any Palestinian concessions, essentially bringing the process back to square zero, Prime Minister Barak suspended any talks until the conclusion of the Israeli elections.(6)

The onset of the intifada with the complicity of the Palestinian Authority (see previous section), followed by Arafat's contemptuous treatment of Barak and the peace effort, greatly contributed to Barak's defeat in those elections. Had Barak managed to reach an agreement, he would have been re-elected resoundingly. As Barak was defeated, so was his peace initiative. In spite of Arafat's apologists' attempts to excuse him, it certainly seems that he did whatever he could to make sure the peace process would not succeed.

May 2005


1. Deborah Sontag, "Quest for Mideast Peace: How and Why It Failed" New York Times, July 26, 2001.

2. David Makovsky, "Taba Mythchief," National Interest, Spring 2003, 123.

3. "Israeli-Palestinian Joint Statement on Taba Talksn," January 27, 2001.

4. "Arafat Speech in Davos," January 28, 2001.

5. "Fatal Terrorist Attacks in Israel since the DOP (Sept. 1993)," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 24, 2000; "Victims of Palestinian Violence and Terrorism Since September 2000," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, September 27, 2000.

6. "Israel Suspends Diplomatic Contacts with the Palestinian Authority," Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, January 28, 2001.

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